Archive for the 'Vegetables' Category

A gardening season potentially washed away

One of the things that has been most strange to me about the Flood of 2008 coverage is that I actually recognize the landmarks. In the past, most of my flood experience has been virtual – I’ve watched the news and sympathized, even sent money for relief, but never actually recognized the locations involved. It’s a completely different experience, the recognition something akin to seeing an ex-boyfriend on the street with a new girl. It’s the same sickening drop in the stomach, no matter how glad you may have been to leave him behind.

Now the floodwaters are being to recede, but that means the recovery is just beginning. And what a recovery it’s going to be. After all, floodwater is dirty-nasty-foul stuff. Oh, toxic sediment, thanks for stopping by (not that you were actually invited to the garden party).

Yeah, speaking of that garden party, I had never given a second of thought to what happens when your home garden floods until I read the Johnson County Extension’s list of warnings and admonitions. The basics? If you had raw sewage in your garden, don’t eat the food. In fact, quit growing any more food, because now you have contaminated dirt. For 90 days.

There are some other suggestions from the Extension: Get rid of leafy greens. Don’t eat your strawberries. Discard anything that was covered with water, even if it was a root vegetable like potatoes, carrots or garlic.

I realize I’m not there to work in my old garden, but when I read that advice (wise as it is), I felt that corresponding sickening drop in the stomach. As if the flooding wasn’t bad enough already, the thought of missing the entire growing season (because a 90-day growing ban would, for all intents and purposes, cause just that) is pretty horrifying.

Free Seedsavers plants available for gardeners who are rebuilding

Tomato seedlings of the kind you can get for free. FREE.On Wednesday, I got an email from Seed Savers Exchange—turns out, they have tomato and pepper plants left over from their spring sale, and while they’re too tall to ship anywhere, they’re perfectly healthy.

And they’re available, for free. Free. All you have to do is drive to Decorah, Iowa.

I realize this is a stretch of a drive for some folks, but I have to tell you…if I was one of those folks in a floodplain, and I needed to make sure I got my tomato fix before the end of the season, I’d be getting in my car, gas prices be damned. These are good, heirloom plants, you people of Iowa. For free.

Go and get ‘em. But call first, in case all the other people who got the email already beat you to it.

You can pick up the transplants at the Lillian Goldman Visitors Center at 3074 North Winn Road, Decorah, Iowa. Call (563) 382-5990 before you go, just to make sure the trip is still worth it.

And another reminder. Small family farms. They need your help.

Nuoc cham-caramelized leeks with shrimp

Leeks and shrimp, cookingEver since I arrived in California, I’ve been over-buying produce. That’s not to say that I’m wasting it—it’s quite possible that I’m eating a closer-to-vegetarian diet than I have ever eaten in my life—but it is requiring me to come up with interesting ways to use what I’ve got in fairly short order so I don’t end up with a full refrigerator of wilted, over-ripe, slightly moldy vegetables and fruits.

I also have a 15-minute commute to and from work. On foot. (I know, I know. Do you know how many people I know want to kick me in the knee just so I can feel the pain they feel when they hear this? Don’t think I don’t know how lucky I am…) That means that when I leave work in the evening, assuming I’m not on my way out to meet friends for dinner, I have the perfect window of time to evaluate what’s in the fridge and how I can combine it in the most tasty manner.

Earlier in the week, I’d mixed up a batch of nuoc cham, that godsend of a condiment served in all Vietnamese restaurants. Lydia of A Perfect Pantry inspired me to make it—I’ve been eating it for years and thinking it couldn’t be that hard to recreate at home, but it took me an awfully long time to actually try to do it. Now that I’ve done it once, I may never be able to go without having some in my refrigerator again. It’s that addictive. And that dead-easy to make.

I am also a huge fan of leeks, particularly when they’re roasted alongside a chicken, or caramelized, slowly, until they’re soft and sweet. Leek and potato soup is one of my favorites, and I adore braising them. I picked up some beautiful leeks at Friday’s Old Oakland Farmer’s Market, and decided, during my walk home, that tonight was the night they would give it up for the cause.

I caramelized them up in some local olive oil, then tossed in some of the leftover nuoc cham, which braised them just a bit before cooking down to a lovely sauce. Toward the end of the process, I tossed in some shrimp for protein’s sake, let them turn pink and opaque, and served it all up together. It was a simple, delicious combination that I plan to return to—a little bit sweet, and just barely savory from the chili-garlic sauce in the nuoc cham. If I make it again, the only thing I might try next time around is tossing in a little chili oil just to bump up the spicy side of the flavor combination. Otherwise, it’s all good.

Nuoc cham-caramelized leeks with shrimpNuoc cham-caramelized leeks with shrimp
(Serves four)

2 Tbsp. olive oil
8 leeks, trimmed (remove the ends and the tops) and sliced thinly
1/3 c. nuoc cham (See Lydia for the ideal recipe)
2 dozen uncooked shrimp, peeled and deveined (Leave the tails on, if you’d like)
Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

  1. Heat the olive oil over medium-high heat in a large sauté pan.
  2. Add the sliced leeks and turn the heat down to medium-low. Cook the leeks, stirring occasionally, until they are soft and caramelized, approximately 40 minutes. At the 30-minute mark, add salt and pepper and taste. Adjust seasonings if need be.
  3. Once the leeks are caramelized, add the nuoc cham. Continue cooking until the sauce is reduced by at least half and is fully coating the leeks.
  4. Add the shrimp to the pan and cook, stirring every minute or so, for approximately five minutes or until the shrimp are opaque and pink. Be careful not to overcook.
  5. Serve immediately. For a prettier presentation, serve the shrimp on top of a bed of the leeks.

This is my contribution for this week’s version of Weekend Herb Blogging, which is hosted this week by Astrid of Paulchen’s FoodBlog. Please stop by later in the weekend to read the full round-up!

This summer, I will buy tomatoes

Tomatoes are OK with meAs one might expect by taking a look at this blog’s header graphic, I’ve been getting quite a bit of email about the tomato recall. I have been reading the stories, the analyses on various listserves and blogs, and the lists of precautionary measures.

I’m going to be honest with you. Banning spinach is one thing entirely. But tomatoes? Them’s fighting words.

The reality is this: the tomatoes that have been banned are the ones that, to be quite blunt about it, suck. Not that the ones on the “OK” list are all that great. I have bitten into more nasty-foul grape tomatoes from the grocery store than I care to count, and finally stopped buying them because I was so tired of the pop-bite-spit-into-trash-can routine I’d mastered in my office at lunchtime. There are amazing tomatoes and there are bad tomatoes, and life is too short for bad tomatoes.

But what I fear is the backlash against the good stuff. What’s going to happen this summer, when tomato season in the U.S. peaks, and people go to their local farmer’s markets and turn up their nose at the selection of Brandywines and Juliets? Because, to be honest, while I feel terrible for the 167 people (and probably more who have yet gone unrecognized) who have suffered from salmonella because they ate a bad tomato, I’d bet good money on the fact that they ate a bland, pale-red slice not worthy of the name TOMATO.

This is the worst unkindness of all, really. I’m a risky eater. I will eat street food in places that no one would recommend the eating of street food. I have most certainly eaten meat that was probably not in the pork-beef-chicken-lamb continuum, but it was highly spiced, so I couldn’t tell the difference anyway. I used to brush my teeth with the tap water in Nigeria (and yes, I realize I put myself at great health risk, but I was 11 and petulant and trust me, my father punished me well enough on the day he figured out I had been doing that, so there’s no need to yell at me now).

I have also suffered from food poisoning so bad I thought I would die. (It had nothing to do with Nigerian water. In fact, the only place I’ve gotten food poisoning? The U.S. of A.) Like I said before, I don’t wish that on anyone.

But it seems to me that by banning salsa at Baja Fresh, all anyone’s doing is raising the panic level. Instead, why don’t we take a look at the root causes of why salmonella, which used to be in the purview of chickens and eggs, has now crossed the road to crawl into the body of a tomato? Whether the problem is spinach, or tomatoes, or Jack in the Box burgers, maybe the problem here is not a particular ingredient or food item, but a sign of a larger, more fundamental weakness in our food system.

As for me, I’m going to continue eating tomatoes the way I have for at least the past few years: purchased from regional farmers (since I’m not currently harboring any plants of my own). Local, preferably heirloom, tomatoes. As far as I’m concerned, the pleasure of that first, ripe, summer tomato will far outweigh the miniscule risk that it might make me sick.

Green Thumb Sunday: Artichokes, Lake Merritt

Artichokes, Lake Merritt

Gardeners, plant and nature lovers can join in Green Thumb Sunday every week. Visit As the Garden Grows for more information.

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